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Recovering: Supporting Children and Families

Families who have experienced traumatic events like abuse or neglect need support. This lesson will continue to describe the protective factors framework. It will provide strategies for strengthening all families including those affected by abuse or neglect. 

  • Identify protective factors that prevent child abuse and neglect.  
  • Describe the stress factors related to family trauma.  
  • Identify resources in your program and community for supporting families.  
  • Describe ways to partner with families to identify and prevent child abuse and neglect. 



Think about these three words: Safety, Stability, and Nurture. What do they mean? Think about a relationship in your own life that was represented by these three words. What did others in the relationship do that made it feel safe, stable, and nurturing? What impact did that relationship have on your life? Whether you recognize it or not, relationships like these likely shaped your outlook on the world and your ability to succeed. Let’s take a look at a few relationships that could be considered safe, stable, and nurturing.

Chandra is just 6 weeks old. After a high-risk pregnancy and complicated delivery, Chandra’s mom, Jayne, is nervous about going back to work. As a single mom, she knows it is something she has to do. Jayne is happy that Chandra has a space in the Child Development Center. Several of her friends and coworkers have infants in the program, too. She makes an appointment to meet Chandra’s teachers and tour the child development center that Chandra will enter next week. Jayne brings her own mother with her on the tour. Jayne’s mother has been a big help since the baby was born. Jayne knows she can count on her to help whenever she can. Chandra sleeps peacefully in Jayne’s arms throughout the tour. When she wakes and begins to fuss, Jayne sings and soothes her. Grandma smiles and offers to hold the baby while Jayne completes paperwork. Jayne and her mother chat happily with the caregivers about Chandra’s routines, preferences, and temperament.

Charlotte was just about to turn 4 years old when her family received orders to move across the country for her father’s job. Charlotte was very excited about her upcoming birthday, but her mom and dad knew that the move would likely change some of their plans. Charlotte’s mom talked to a few other parents and arranged for her to have a “skype” birthday party from her new home. As soon as they arrived at their new home, Charlotte’s parents saw a flier for a preschool playgroup at the recreation center. Charlotte and her parents went to the playgroup and met other families who lived on their street. Charlotte was thrilled that she had new “best friends” before she even started attending the new child development center.

Ravi waits patiently for his father to pick him up from the school-age program. His mom is coming home tonight from a 6-month deployment. He can hardly wait. He quickly glances out the window and sees his dad’s car pull into the parking lot. He carefully picks up the artwork he created for his mom. It’s so precious to him that he won’t even put it in his book bag. As dad comes in, Ravi rushes over, hugs him while carefully protecting the artwork, and asks, “Is it time?” They drive together to the welcome site and chat about Ravi’s day, the preparations they made for mom, and the things they’ll do together over the next few days.

Like all families, Chandra’s, Charlotte’s, and Ravi’s families have experienced some stress. Whether faced with single parenting, relocation, separation, financial or job-related stress, strong families are resilient and bounce back. No matter what, they make sure their children have safe, stable, and nurturing relationships. Chandra’s mom has extended family support, close friends, and a strong bond with her infant. She is beginning to build a strong relationship with the caregiver at the child development center. Charlotte’s parents understand her emotional needs. They help her maintain connections with old friends and build new friendships. Ravi’s family communicates with one another, celebrates one another, and spends time connecting and reconnecting.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider safe, stable, and nurturing relationships like these one of the “essentials of childhood.” Let’s explore how the Centers for Disease Control define these three words.

  • Safety: Safety is “the extent to which a child is free from fear and secure from physical or psychological harm.” This means that adults protect child from harm. Adults regulate their own emotions and monitor children’s development.
  • Stability: Stability is “the degree of predictability and consistency in a child’s environment.” This means the child comes to learn that the world is a manageable place. Consistent family routines are one way stability is provided for children.
  • Nurture: Nurture is “the extent to which a parent or caregiver is available and able to sensitively respond to and meet the needs of their child.”

Unfortunately, trauma (like abuse or neglect) can damage or destroy a child’s sense of safety, stability, and nurture. This impacts development. Now think about the children in your care. Do all of them have relationships that are safe, stable, and nurturing? Based on what you have learned already in this course, it is clear that for some children the answer is, “no.” We do not have to accept that as an answer. It is our job to help strengthen families and help each and every person look back on their childhood and answer, “yes.”

You can do this by being aware of the stressors affecting your families. Being involved in a suspected case of child abuse or neglect can bring a great deal of stress to a family. The rest of this lesson will focus on (1) the behaviors or issues you might see after a family has been involved in a report, and (2) how to help families that have experienced this kind of trauma. Remember: any time you are uncomfortable or don’t know what to do, you can go to your T&Cs or supervisor for help. You do not need to face anything alone.

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourage promotion of resilience for families. Skills and actions that promote resilience are especially helpful to families that have experienced trauma.

“Resilience is the process by which the child moves through a traumatic event, utilizing protective factors for support, and returning to “baseline” in terms of an emotional and physiological response to the stressor.” -American Academy of Pediatrics, Promoting Resilience (2021)

Resilience is a crucial piece in a person's ability to navigate stressful situations. For children, it buffers the negative effects that can last into adulthood and for adults it diminishes the amount of stress they may experience. You can work to build resilience in yourself, students, and their families by utilizing protective factors.


Many families who are involved in allegations of child abuse or neglect have experienced some kind of trauma. This might mean they experienced abuse or neglect themselves as children. There may also be domestic violence toward adults in the home. They may experience family or community violence.

Trauma can influence how a family interacts with you. Look for these characteristics (Preventing Child Maltreatment, 2013):

  • Families that have experienced trauma may find it difficult to build trusting relationships with you. It might not be easy for them to trust anyone.
  • Families might perceive aggression or danger where it does not exist. They may struggle with keeping themselves or their children safe. You might find yourself questioning their decision-making.
  • They may abuse drugs or alcohol.
  • They may have a hard time controlling their emotions.
  • They may seem numb or “shut down.”

Watch this video to learn more about supporting families impacted by trauma.

Working with Families that have Experienced Trauma

Learn about working with families that have experienced trauma.


The following list of strategies is from the Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide. Consider ways you can use these strategies to support families who have experienced trauma:

  • Talk to your T&CS or administrator for support any time you have a concern about a family.
  • Understand that a parent’s reactions (including anger, resentment, or avoidance) may be due to trauma. Do not take parents’ reactions personally.
  • Remember that parents who have experienced trauma are not “bad.” Blaming or judging them is likely to make the situation worse.
  • Recognize that all parents want the children to be safe and healthy. Compliment parents’ good decisions and healthy choices when you see them.
  • Stay calm, and keep your voice as neutral and non-threatening as possible. Model direct and honest communication.
  • Be consistent. When you make a commitment, follow through.
  • Be aware that you could experience secondary traumatic stress, which can occur when you see or hear about trauma to others. Take care of yourself and take time to address your own reactions when you feel you are getting overwhelmed.
  • Promote protective factors.

You should become aware of the resources available to families in your community or on your installation.

  • The military Family Advocacy Program, victim advocacy, and transitional compensation exist to address family abuse through prevention, intervention, treatment and victim assistance. Visit for more information.
  • The Family Readiness System (FRS) is the network of programs, services, people, and agencies, and the collaboration among them, that promotes the readiness and quality of life of service members and their families. The services available through the Family Readiness System can help families develop new skills and tackle life’s challenges in every stage of military life. Services vary by installation but may include: mobility and deployment assistance, relocation assistance, personal financial management, spouse education and career services, family life education, emergency family assistance, domestic abuse prevention and response services, child-abuse prevention and response services, new parent support, exceptional family member support, non-medical individual and family counseling, transition assistance, morale, welfare, and recreation, and Information and referral.
  • Non-medical counseling is available to all Service members and their families at no cost. Non-medical counseling programs provide confidential, short term counseling to active duty members, National Guard and reserve service members and their families. Counselors possess a master’s or doctorate degree in a mental health field and are licensed or certified in a state, territory or the District of Columbia to practice independently. Non-medical counseling is designed to address issues such as improving relationships at home and work, stress management, adjustment issues (for example, returning from a deployment), marital problems, parenting, and grief and loss issues. These personal sessions are available face-to-face, by phone, and online. Non-medical counseling is not designed to address long-term issues such as child abuse or neglect, domestic violence, suicidal ideation and mental health issues, but it can be an option for families that are facing short-term stressors. For more information, visit

Just like this lesson opened with examples of children in safe, stable, and nurturing relationships, let’s end this lesson with an example of ways you can reduce stress in a family that has experienced trauma. Consider Kyle and his mother:

Kyle had experienced neglect in his home, and his mother is currently receiving help in the community after the report and investigation. You have noticed Kyle is acting out much more than usual. At the end of the day when Kyle’s mom comes to pick him up, you see your coworker run up to her and say, “You need to sign this incident report. Kyle hit 4 other children today. If this keeps up, we may have to recommend another placement for him.” 

Kyle’s mother breaks down in tears and says, “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve taken off so much time from work trying to be a better mom. If I lose child care, I’m afraid I’ll be fired. What am I going to do?” She pulls a crying Kyle out the door. 

The next day when Kyle’s mom comes in, you rush up and say, “Good news! We had a few issues, but Kyle did much better today. We are making progress!” A smile comes across both Kyle’s and his mother’s face. You feel good knowing that just putting things in perspective can help reduce stress in the family. 

Remember, you are a team, working alongside the child’s family and your coworkers. Be honest with the family and communicate how the child is doing while remembering to offer the family support. If a child is struggling, discuss ways you are supporting the child and what the family can do at home.


In the Preschool Case Study: Part 5 activity, review the protective factors discussed within this lesson and throughout this course. Think of the available resources and supports that may have helped the family around each of the factors. Share your responses with a trainer, coach, or administrator. Review the suggested responses for additional reflection.


Review the Protective Factors Tip Sheets and Protective Factors Conversation Guides from the Child Welfare Information Gateway. The tip sheets were designed to be distributed to parents and caregivers to address a particular parenting concern or question. The information is easy to read and focuses on concrete strategies parents and caregivers can use to take care of their children and strengthen their families. The conversation guides were designed to assist you in having conversations with parents and caregivers about how the protective factors contribute to positive outcomes for families. The tip sheets and guides are available in English and Spanish.

Download and print the Protective Factors Tip Sheets and the Protective Factors Conversation Guides that would be useful and relevant to the families that you serve. Create a family folder that you can use as a collection of resources for families. All of the VLS courses offer valuable resources that you can choose from and add to your family folder. You can use the information you gather to create program displays or share with families in your program and community. Review your folder with your trainer, coach, or administrator and discuss ways to share the information with families.

Spend some time reflecting on ways you strengthen families. Complete the Strengthening Families: Protective Factors Self-Assessment adapted from the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s Strengthening Families Program Self-Assessment. Use it to reflect on your interactions and relationships with families. To view full-length assessments and resources from the Center for the Study of Social Policy, please visit:


Treating a child in a hurtful or abusive way
Secondary traumatic stress:
An emotional and physical reaction to the traumatic experiences of others. For example, you might feel a great deal of stress on behalf of a child who is injured or in danger
A serious injury or shock (physical or emotional) to the body


Which of the following thoughts might get in the way of having a positive relationship with a family affected by child abuse or neglect? 
You suspected Destin’s mom of child abuse and made a report. Several days later, Destin’s dad came into the program and he was furious. He withdrew Destin from the program. You didn’t see him, but you learned later that he called you hurtful names. What is the healthiest way for you to respond? 
You have just made a report of suspected child abuse after months of observing Austin and noting minor concerns. Something happened this week that made you feel sick to your stomach. You made the report, but you still can’t stop thinking about it. You can’t sleep at night. You have no appetite, and you feel nervous all the time. What might be happening? 
Why are safe, stable, and nurturing relationships considered “essential”? 
Last year you suspected Jacque’s family of neglect and made a report. Since then, Jacque’s mother has seemed very disengaged from you and the program. She seems to get angry very easily. Which of the following actions can help you support Jacque’s family? 
References & Resources

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2020). Promoting Resilience.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, April) About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study.

Felitti, Vince J. et al. (1998) Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 14, p 245-258. doi:10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8

Harris, Nadine Burke. (2014, September) Nadine Burke Harris: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime [Video file].

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Strategic Direction for Child Maltreatment Prevention: Preventing Child Maltreatment Through the Promotion of Safe, Stable, and Nurturing Relationships Between Children and Caregivers. 

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2021/2022). Prevention Resource Guide.